Sonnet 64: When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 64,’ also known as ‘When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced,’ is number sixty-four of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote and was published together after his death. This particular sonnet is part of the very famous and much-loved Fair Youth sequence of sonnets. They last from sonnet number one all the way through one hundred twenty-six. These sonnets are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day. This sonnet is concerned with some of Shakespeare’s most familiar themes, love, time, and change. 

 

Summary of Sonnet 64 

‘Sonnet 64’ by William Shakespeare is a dark and depressing poem that speaks on the power of time to destroy the speaker’s love.

Within the text the poet uses personification in order to describe the way that time consumes everything it creates. The force causes other forces, such as the land and sea, to battle for dominance. But more than anything, it is the reason that the speaker’s love is eventually going to die. He mourns this future and admits to carrying an all-consuming fear of that day arriving.

 

Structure of Sonnet 64

‘Sonnet 64’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within one stanza, in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan) is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.

 

Poetic Techniques in Sonnet 64 

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 64’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and imagery. The latter, imagery, refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. For example, the “lofty towers” the speaks sees “down-razed” and the decay/ruin that has taught him to consider more personal loss. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “buried” and “brass” in lines two and four as well as “win” and “watery” in line seven. 

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. There are numerous examples of this technique within ‘Sonnet 64’. These can be seen through the depiction of time as a force that’s able to consume everything around it, the sea as hungrily eating the land and visa versa. 

 

Analysis of Sonnet 64

Lines 1-4 

When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced

The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;

When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,

And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;

In the first lines of this sonnet readers familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets will be reintroduced to a common theme, that of time as the creator and destroyer of everything beautiful in the world. Coming off the back of ‘Sonnet 63,’ these fourteen lines continue to speak about the Fair Youth without directly addressing him. 

In the previous sonnet, the speaker was declaring his intentions to fight back against time by depicting the youth thoroughly within his poetry. Now, in the first lines of this sonnet, the speaker states that he has seen “time’s fell,” or terrible, “hand” destroy beautiful and important creations. These are “lofty towers,” or monuments/buildings of men of the past. They are “down-razed”. These things and more, those which the speaker would never expect to see destroyed have been destroyed. The speaker puts the destruction of these things at the hands of “mortal rage,” or human beings. 

 

Lines 5-8 

When I have seen the hungry ocean gain

Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,

And the firm soil win of the watery main,

Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;

In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 64’ the speaker goes on to say that he’s also seen the “hungry ocean gain / Advantage on the kingdom of the shore”. He’s seen it swallow up the land and destroy/claim territory that it wants. This is one great example of personification within this short poem. 

He’s also seen the opposite occur, the land descends upon the ocean and claims back territory that it wants. One’s “loss” means the other gains something. 

 

Lines 9-12 

When I have seen such interchange of state,

Or state itself confounded to decay,

Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,

That time will come and take my love away.

This thought is as a death, which cannot choose

But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 64,’ the speaker states that now that he’s seen all of these things it has taught him to think deeply about time and the inevitable changes that come with it. The “Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate” on the world at large, he says. He realizes now that not only will time take away his love’s beauty and good graces, it will also remove the Fair Youth from the earth. 

Rather than providing a solution to this problem the last two lines of the sonnet delve deeper into the speaker’s personal sorrow. The first parts of the poem were devoted to the larger, worldly repercussions of time. The final focus on the speaker alone. He thinks of the death of his youthful love and the thought itself feels like death. It makes him “weep” over that which knows he must eventually lose. 

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